Scene 1: The butcher at the local food store turned to face me from behind the counter. I noticed his mask in the below-the-nose position. I gave him my food order, and calmly asked him to wear his mask appropriately. He thanked me for reminding him, and we bade each other a good day.
Scene 2: Same food store, same day. A customer ahead of me was checking out, paying the cashier. I assumed my spot, six feet behind, on the assigned, socially distanced color blob on the floor. A shopping cart coming from my left appeared in front of me and assumed the position between me and the customer checking out.
“Excuse me,” I said, intentionally calm and non-threatening. The customer looked at me, his mask in the below-the-chin position. I told him I was waiting on line and asked that he not cut in front of me. He wasn’t pleased, called me “an ass,” but went to the next checkout line.
“May I also ask you to wear your mask the right way?” I said, still calm, non-threatening, non-judgmental.
“No, I won’t. I won’t be an ass like you.”
I asked, “Out of curiosity, why do you feel so strongly about not wearing the mask?”
Now threatening, he yelled, “Because you’re an ass, and you better not ask again or we’ll really have a problem! Are you looking for a problem?”
No, I wasn’t looking for a problem. I was looking for chicken. But I felt an obligation to say something when my safety, and that of those around me, was threatened.
After paying for my groceries, while my fellow shopper (still with mask concealing only his Adam’s apple) finished checking out, I spoke with the store managers. I told them what happened at the butcher counter and in the checkout line. I told them that although I was a regular customer, I’d find it hard to return to a store where the safety of customers and staff is put in jeopardy by fellow customers and staff.
The managers lamented their plight, talking about the difficulty they faced enforcing the mask rules and the verbal, and sometimes physical, threats they and their employees have had to endure. They apologized for the behavior of their butcher, qualified by, “The staff is almost always good about masking.” And they spoke of the difficulty of enforcing mask rules among shoppers, and the awful choice their cashiers have to make regularly: risk a confrontation with a mask-deficient customer, or risk exposure to the coronavirus.
I expressed my understanding of the awful situation store owners and employees are in, a situation they never sought.
But I also expressed my passion about the issue. Because I’m a customer, a citizen, a husband, a parent. And I’m a physician, practicing primary care internal medicine in this community for over 30 years. We’ve lost patients to Covid-19, some of whom we’ve known for most of those three decades. We’ve cared for many others who’ve recovered, some of whom are still struggling with the lingering effects of the virus.
What have we become? We threaten those who request that others in our presence follow simple guidance that could save another’s life? In a pre-Covid time, had I been wearing an Islanders T-shirt and my fellow shopper, a Rangers T-shirt, would I have been threatened for my team partisanship?
It’s simple. It’s not political. It’s caring for others. It’s setting an example for others. It’s making a tiny sacrifice to potentially protect another human being. It’s pushing back against an ideology that questions science to foster political goals. It’s following the simplest guidance there is: Treat others as you’d want to be treated yourself.
We owe one another nothing less.
Eric Last, DO, FACP, is an attending physician and clinical assistant professor at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. He is also a physician at Northwell Health Physician Partners/Internal Medicine at Wantagh.